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Romanian family's dream of life in Canada ended tragically in waters off Akwesasne

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A Romanian family who had hoped to build a life near Toronto with their two Canadian-born children saw their dreams end tragically in the frigid waters off Akwesasne, Que., after fleeing a deportation order.

Florin Iordache, his wife Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, their two-year-old daughter Evelin and one-year-old son Elyen were among eight people found dead in a river near the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory last week.

Peter Ivanyi, a Toronto lawyer who had represented the Iordache family since 2018, said in an interview Tuesday the couple were desperate to stay in the country for the sake of their two children, who were Canadian citizens.

Police say the family, as well as four members of a family from India, were trying to cross illegally to the United States through Akwesasne, which straddles provincial and international boundaries and includes regions of Quebec, Ontario and New York state. Casey Oakes, a 30-year-old Akwesasne man whose overturned boat was found near the victims, remains missing.

Ivanyi said his last communication with Florin Iordache was early last week to inform him that all the family's legal avenues to stay in Canada were exhausted and they were facing removal from the country on March 29. He believes that news prompted the Iordaches to attempt the risky river journey to the United States.

In a phone interview, Ivanyi said he doesn't believe Iordache really wanted to settle in the United States, despite having family in Florida, because his children were Canadian citizens. But he was determined they would not return to Romania and face the discrimination he and his wife had experienced as Roma.

"I think it was out of desperation and having run out of other options and hope as far as they saw it," Ivanyi said.

He said the couple were among a flood of Romanians who arrived in the country in December 2017 after Canada waived most visa requirements. Florin Iordache and his wife, who is listed as Monalisa Budi on immigration applications, filed for asylum the next year on the grounds that they face discrimination back home.

Ivanyi said Roma are "excluded, ostracized, alienated" in most aspects of Romanian life, from medical care to housing and social services. They often don't finish school due to the abuse and discrimination they face, leading to high unemployment rates, he said.

While the Immigration and Refugee Board found the couple's story to be credible, Ivanyi said, it denied their application because they didn't believe the situation was so dire that the couple would be denied basic human rights in Romania. He said he was not authorized to provide a copy of the decision.

Ivanyi said he was shocked to learn that Florin Iordache was only 28 when he died, because he had always seemed so much older. "It was clear that he felt the burden of having to keep his kids in Canada," he said. "To give them, not just a better life, but to prevent them from having to live through all those terrible things that he and his wife had growing up."

Ivanyi said Iordache settled near Toronto and made a living in part by buying cheap cars and reselling them. Friends have said he also worked in cleaning and construction.

While the lawyer said the family didn't have much money, photos show them settling into Canadian life, including trips to Niagara Falls and Christmas celebrations. They attended the All Saints Romanian Orthodox Church, in Scarborough, where their children were baptized.

He said that after their asylum claim was rejected, the couple applied late last year for a pre-removal risk assessment in an attempt to show they faced danger if deported. When that was denied last month, they appealed and asked for a deferral of removal, on grounds that included their two young children's medical conditions.

Ivanyi described his last conversation with Iordache, when he informed his client those options had failed, as "dejected, terrible."

The Iordaches died alongside a family from the western Indian state of Gujarat -- Praveenbhai Chaudhari, 50; Dakshaben Chaudhari, 45; their 20-year-old son Meet; and 23-year-old daughter Vidi.

Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police for the city of Mehsana in Gujarat, told The Canadian Press the Chaudharis were regularly in touch with family back home, but the messages stopped about a week before their deaths. Family members were distraught to learn of the fatal mishap through news reports and social media, he said.

Tyagi said the investigation suggests the Chaudharis were in Canada on a tourist visa. He said Indian officials will work with their Canadian counterparts to get more information on the family's journey, and on whether the family used agents to get to Canada or to attempt the crossing to the United States.

"They are being given false assurances by somebody that this is a safe route," he said. "If they realized that it's very dangerous, I don't think people would want to do that."

The deaths have come at a time when police in Akwesasne have warned of an increase in human smuggling in the territory, whose border-straddling geography has long made it a hot spot for illicit crossings.

Mohawk Police Chief Shawn Dulude told reporters on Friday that his police force has made 48 interceptions involving 80 people trying to enter the United States illegally since January, and that most were people of Indian or Romanian descent.

Ivanyi, who has represented Romanian immigrants since 1997, said he's heard indirectly of other people who crossed frozen lakes or rivers to the United States but has never before heard of anyone taking a boat.

"I think it's probably the most risky way to do it," he said. "And who would do that? I'm speculating here, but (it would be) the most desperate."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.

-- With files from Hina Alam

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